Authors: Amor Towles
When they had taken their seats, everyone was silent for a moment as the fire crackled and sparked, and it seemed to Woolly that he and Billy and Duchess were young warriors who had been given the privilege of witnessing the meeting between two tribal chiefs. But in the end, it was Billy who spoke first, encouraging Ulysses to tell his tale.
After nodding at Billy, Ulysses turned his eyes to the professor and began. First, he explained how he and a woman named Macie, both alone in the world, had met in a dance hall in St. Louis, fallen in love, and been joined in holy matrimony. He explained how, when the war began, Macie had kept him close to her side as his able-bodied neighbors joined the fray, and how she had tightened her grip once she was radiant with child. He explained how despite her warnings, he had
enlisted, fought in Europe, and returned some years later to find that—good as her word—she and the boy had disappeared without a trace. Finally, he described how he had returned to Union Station that day, boarded the first train to anywhere, and been riding the rails ever since. And it was one of the saddest stories that Woolly had ever heard.
For a moment no one spoke. Even Duchess, who was always eager to follow someone else’s story with a story of his own, kept his silence, sensing, perhaps, as Woolly did, that something of great consequence was unfolding right before their eyes.
After a few minutes, as if he had needed the moment of silence in order to gather himself, Ulysses continued.
—I am of the opinion, Professor, that everything of value in this life must be earned. That it
be earned. Because those who are given something of value without having to earn it are bound to squander it. I believe that one should earn respect. One should earn trust. One should earn the love of a woman, and the right to call oneself a man. And one should also earn the right to hope. At one time I had a wellspring of hope—a wellspring that I had not earned. And not knowing what it was worth, on the day I left my wife and child, I squandered it. So over these last eight and a half years, I have learned to live without hope, just as surely as Cain lived without it once he entered the land of Nod.
To live without hope, said Woolly to himself as he nodded his head and wiped the tears from his eyes. To live without hope in the land of Nod.
—That is, said Ulysses, until I met this boy.
Without taking his gaze from the professor, Ulysses put a hand on Billy’s shoulder.
—When Billy said that as one named Ulysses, I might be destined to see my wife and child again, I felt a stirring within me. And when he read to me from your book, I felt it even more strongly. So much more strongly, that I dared to wonder if, after all these years of
traveling the country alone, I might finally have earned the right to hope again.
As Ulysses said this, Woolly sat up straighter. Earlier that day, he had tried to give his sister Sarah some sense of how a statement disguised as a question could be an ugly sort of thing. But beside the campfire, when Ulysses said to Professor Abernathe,
I might finally have earned the right to hope again
, Woolly understood that here was a question disguised as a statement. And Woolly found it to be beautiful.
Professor Abernathe seemed to understand this as well. For after a moment of silence, he offered an answer. And as the professor spoke, Ulysses listened with the same deference that the professor had shown to him.
—My life, such as it is, Mr. Ulysses, has been the opposite of yours in many respects. I have never been to war. I have not traveled this country. In fact, for most of the last thirty years, I have remained on the island of Manhattan. And for most of the last ten, I have remained in that.
Turning, the professor pointed to the Empire State Building.
—There I have sat in a room surrounded by books, as insulated from the sounds of crickets and seagulls as from the reach of violence and compassion. If you are right, as I suspect you are—that what is valuable must be earned or it’s bound to be squandered—then surely, I am among the squanderers. One who has lived his life in the third person and the past tense. So let me start by acknowledging that anything I say to you, I say with the utmost humility.
Ceremoniously, the professor bowed his head to Ulysses.
—But having confessed that I have lived my life through books, I can at least report that I have done so with conviction. Which is to say, Mr. Ulysses, that I have read a great deal. I have read thousands of books, many of them more than once. I have read histories and novels, scientific tracts and volumes of poetry. And from all of these pages upon pages, one thing I have learned is that there is just enough
variety in human experience for every single person in a city the size of New York to feel with assurance that their experience is unique. And this is a wonderful thing. Because to aspire, to fall in love, to stumble as we do and yet soldier on, at some level we must believe that what we are going through has never been experienced quite as
have experienced it.
The professor turned his gaze from Ulysses so that he could make eye contact with everyone in the circle, including Woolly. But returning his gaze to Ulysses, the professor raised a finger in the air.
—However, he continued, having observed that there is enough variety in human experience to sustain our sense of individuality in a locus as vast as New York, I strongly suspect that there is only
enough variety to do so. For were it in our power to gather up all the personal stories that have been experienced in different cities and townships around the world and across time, I haven’t the slightest doubt that doppelgängers would abound. Men whose lives—despite the variation here and there—were just as our own in every material respect. Men who have loved when we loved, wept when we wept, accomplished what we have accomplished and failed as we have failed, men who have argued and reasoned and laughed exactly as we.
The professor looked around again.
—Impossible, you say?
Though no one had said a word.
—It is one of the most basic principles of infinity that it must, by definition, encompass not only one of everything, but everything’s duplicate, as well as its triplicate. In fact, to imagine that there are additional versions of ourselves scattered across human history is substantially less outlandish than to imagine that there are none.
The professor turned his gaze back to Ulysses.
—So, do I think it is possible that your life could be an echo of the life of the Great Ulysses, and that after ten years you could be reunited with your wife and son? I am certain of it.
Ulysses had taken in what the professor had said with the greatest gravity. Now he stood, and the professor stood, and the two clasped hands, each seeming to have found an unexpected solace from the other. But when the two men let their hands drop and Ulysses turned, the professor took him by the arm and drew him back.
—But there is something you need to know, Mr. Ulysses. Something that I didn’t put in Billy’s book. In the midst of his travels, when the Great Ulysses visited the underworld and met the ghost of Tiresias, the old soothsayer told him that he was destined to wander the seas until he had appeased the gods through an act of tribute.
Had Woolly been in Ulysses’s position, upon hearing this additional piece of news, he would have felt a great sense of defeat. But Ulysses didn’t seem to. Instead, he nodded his head at the professor, as if this was just as it should be.
—What act of tribute?
—What Tiresias tells Ulysses is that he must take up an oar and carry it into the countryside until he has reached a land so unfamiliar with the ways of the sea that a man in the road will stop to ask:
What is that you carry upon your shoulder?
At that spot, the Great Ulysses was to plant the oar in the ground in Poseidon’s honor, and thenceforth he would be free.
—An oar . . . , said Ulysses.
—Yes, said the professor excitedly, in the case of the Great Ulysses, an oar. But in your case, it would be something different. Something pertinent to
story, to your years of wandering. Something . . .
The professor began looking about.
—Something like that!
Bending over, Ulysses picked up the heavy piece of iron the professor had pointed to.
—A spike, he said.
—Yes, said the professor, a spike. You must carry that to the place
where someone is so unfamiliar with the railways that they ask you what it is, and on that spot, you should hammer it into the ground.
When Woolly and Billy and Duchess were ready to leave, Professor Abernathe decided to stay behind in order to speak with Ulysses further. Then, just a few minutes after the three of them had gotten in the Cadillac, both Billy and Duchess had fallen asleep. So, as Woolly drove up the West Side Highway toward his sister’s house, he had a moment to himself.
If Woolly were perfectly honest, most of the time he’d rather not have a moment to himself. Moments with other people, he found, were much more likely to be filled with laughter and surprises than moments with oneself. And moments with oneself were more likely to circle inward toward some thought that one didn’t want to be having in the first place. But on this occasion, on this occasion that he found himself with a moment to himself, Woolly welcomed it.
Because it provided him with the opportunity to revisit the day. He began at FAO Schwarz, when he was standing in his favorite spot and his sister had suddenly appeared. Then it was across the street to the Plaza for old times’ sake where they had tea with the panda and retold some of the grand old stories. Upon parting with his sister, finding it to be a lovely day, Woolly had walked all the way to Union Square so he could pay his respects to Abraham Lincoln. Then it was off to the circus, and over the Brooklyn Bridge, and up the Empire State Building where Professor Abernathe had bestowed upon Billy a book filled with blank pages in which to set down his adventures. Then Billy had taken them all to the overgrown elevated, where they had sat around the campfire and listened to the extraordinary exchange between Ulysses and the professor.
But after that, after all of the all of that, when it was finally time
to go, and Ulysses had shaken Billy’s hand and thanked him for his friendship, and Billy had wished Ulysses well on his quest to find his family, Billy had taken a pendant from around his neck.
—This, he said to Ulysses, is the medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. It was given to me by Sister Agnes before our journey to New York, but I think that you should have it now.
And then, so that the medal could be hung around his neck, Ulysses knelt before Billy, just as the members of the Round Table had knelt before King Arthur in order to be knighted.
—When you put it, said Woolly to no one but himself, while wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, when you put it all together just like that, with the beginning at the beginning, the middle in the middle, and the end at the end, there is no denying that today was a one-of-a-kind kind of day.
oriander! said Woolly to
himself with enthusiasm.
For while Duchess was showing Billy how to
stir a sauce, Woolly had set about alphabetizing the spice rack. And it didn’t take long for him to discover just how many spices began with the letter
. In the entire rack there was only one that started with the letter
: Allspice, whatever that was. And Allspice was followed by just two spices that began with the letter
: Basil and Bay Leaves. But once Woolly moved on to spices that began with the letter
, well, it seemed there was no end to them! So far, there had been Cardamom, Cayenne, Chili Powder, Chives, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cumin, and now, Coriander.
It certainly made one wonder.
Perhaps, thought Woolly, perhaps it was like the matter of the
s at the beginning of questions. At some point in ancient times, the letter
must have seemed particularly suitable to the naming of spices.
Or maybe it was at some
in ancient times. Some place where the letter
had more sway over the alphabet. All of a sudden Woolly seemed to remember from one of his history classes that many moons ago there had been something called the Spice Route—a long and arduous trail along which tradesmen traveled in order to bring the spices of the East to the kitchens of the West. He even remembered a map with an arrow that arced across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas until it touched down safely in Venice, or some such spot.
spices originated on the other side of the globe struck Woolly as a clear possibility, since he didn’t even know what half of them tasted like. He knew Cinnamon, of course. In fact, it was one of his favorite flavors. Not only was it used in the making of apple and pumpkin pie, it was the
sine qua non
of the cinnamon bun. But Cardamom, Cumin, and Coriander? These mysterious words struck Woolly as having a distinctly oriental ring.
—Aha! said Woolly, when he discovered the bottle of Curry hiding behind the Rosemary in the second-to-last row of the rack.
For Curry was most certainly definitely a flavor from the East.
Making some space, Woolly tucked the Curry beside the Cumin. Then he turned his attention to the very last row, running his fingers along the labels of the Oregano and the Sage and the—
—What in the world are
doing there? Woolly wondered to himself.
But before he could answer his own question, Duchess was asking another.
—Where did he go?
Looking up from the spice rack, Woolly discovered Duchess in the doorway with his hands on his hips and Billy nowhere to be seen.
—I turn my back for one minute and he abandons his post.
It was true, thought Woolly. Billy had left the kitchen despite having been put in charge of stirring the sauce.
—He hasn’t gone back to that goddamn clock, has he? asked Duchess.
—Let me investigate.
Quietly, Woolly headed down the hallway and peeked into the living room, where, in fact, Billy had returned to the grandfather clock.
Earlier that morning, when Billy had asked when Emmett would arrive, Duchess had replied with a great deal of confidence that he would be there in time for supper—which was to be served at eight
o’clock on the dot. Normally, this would have prompted Billy to take an occasional glance at his army surplus watch, but the watch had been broken by Emmett on the freight train. So he really had no choice but to pay an occasional visit to the living room instead, where the hands on the grandfather clock now indicated, rather unambiguously, that it was 7:42.
Woolly was tiptoeing back toward the kitchen in order to explain this to Duchess when the telephone rang.
—The phone! Woolly exclaimed to himself. Maybe it’s Emmett.
Making a quick detour into his brother-in-law’s office, Woolly zipped around the desk and picked up the receiver on the very third ring.
—Hello, hello! he said with a smile.
For a moment Woolly’s friendly greeting was met with silence. Then a question was posed in what could only be described as a sharply pointed voice.
—Who is this? the woman on the other end of the line wanted to know. Is that you, Wallace?
Woolly hung up.
For a moment he stared at the phone. Then plucking the receiver out of its cradle, he dropped it on the desk.
What Woolly loved about the game of telephone was that a phrase coming out at the end of the line could be so very different from the phrase that had first gone in. It could be more mysterious. Or surprising. Or amusing. But when someone like his sister Kaitlin spoke into an
telephone, it did not come out even slightly more mysterious or surprising or amusing. It came out just as sharply pointed as it was at the start.
On the desktop the receiver began buzzing like a mosquito in a bedroom in the middle of the night. Woolly swept the phone into one of the drawers and closed it as best he could, what with the cord sticking out.
—Who was that? asked Duchess, when Woolly returned to the kitchen.
—A wrong number.
Billy, who also must have been hoping it had been Emmett, turned to Duchess with a worried look.
—It is almost eight o’clock, he said.
—Is it? said Duchess, in a manner suggesting that one hour was much like the next.
—How’s the sauce coming? Woolly asked, in hopes of changing the subject.
Duchess held the stirring spoon out to Billy.
—Why don’t you give it a try.
After a moment, Billy took the spoon and dipped it in the pot.
—It looks pretty hot, Woolly cautioned.
Billy nodded and blew carefully. When he put the spoon in his mouth, Woolly and Duchess leaned forward in unison, eager to hear the verdict. What they heard instead was the ding-dong of the doorbell.
The three looked at one another. Then Duchess and Billy were off like a shot, the former down the hallway and the latter through the dining-room door.
Woolly smiled for a moment at the sight of it. But then he had a worrisome thought: What if this was another instance of Schrödinger’s Cat? What if the ringing of the bell initiated two different potential realities such that if the door were opened by Billy, it would be Emmett who was standing on the stoop, while were it opened by Duchess, it would be a door-to-door salesman? In a state of scientific uncertainty and heightened anxiety, Woolly hurried down the hall.